One Film to Rule Them All - Lord of the Rings
Imagine taking a final exam in your favorite subject at school. You like the subject matter, and you're sure that when it's all over, you're going to like the results. But it's still a lot of work to get through the whole experience, and when it's all over you can't help but feel exhausted. The new film version of Lord of the Rings is just like that.
First off, let me say that this was a very long movie. Incredibly long. Harry Potter was long too, but it didn't feel long. Lord of the Rings feels long, even if they did leave out much of the action as it unfolds in Tolkien's original novel. This is why I compare it to a final exam, or watching a baseball game, any other serious investment of time. No matter what the outcome, it takes a lot of time and energy. In this case, the film is definitely worth the time.
Lord of the Rings may just be the best fantasy film ever made. And I say that with several reservations, with more than a few gripes, and with the knowledge that hundreds of other reviewers are saying the same thing, even though it's only been a month since everyone said the same thing about Harry Potter. Which is precisely the problem, come to think of it.
Lord of the Rings, you see, is like an ourobouros. In case you're not quite up on the lingo, an ourobouros is one of those circle-shaped figures where the snake is eating its own tail. In this case, Lord of the Rings is like that snake. Long, long ago, Tolkien wrote this novel which happened to influence a bunch of guys who were making this game called Dungeons & Dragons, and that game happened to influence a bunch of filmmakers who created a bunch of fantasy films, and those films influenced the guys who decided to make this film. So ultimately, the Lord of the Rings movie was influenced by the Lord of the Rings novel.
This all seems obvious, of course. But the point I'm trying to make is that when it comes to most films, say, Willow or Beastmaster, it's possible to look at the movie in and of itself, and review it on its own merits. It's impossible to do that with Lord of the Rings. It has too much history, and avoiding comparisons to the book would be futile. So let's get that out of the way first. Minor spoilers ahead.
1. A lot got cut out. I mean, a lot. But they had to, or this would have been a 6 hour movie. The whole scene with the Barrow Wights is gone, as is much of the intermediary action between Hobbiton and Moria. You'd think that this would pick up the pace a bit, but it doesn't. What it does do is serve to illustrate one of Tolkien's greatest weaknesses as a writer: he had no idea when to get to the point. He admitted that the story got away from him and got longer as he wrote it, and it shows, both in the novel and in the movie. There's too much going on. It's not one story, but a dozen stories. And it's a test of endurance to sit through it all at once.
2. A lot got changed. Glorfindel is replaced by Arwen for the most part, the hobbits get swords from Aragorn, magical powers appear to be more telekinetic in nature than anything, and the whole bit with the broken sword is just a subplot of a subplot. Aragorn doesn't even carry the thing.
3. A lot got added. You won't notice it all at first, of course, unless you're a Tolkien fanatic, but it's there. Saruman is a much larger presence here, playing the role of Emperor to Gandalf's Obi-Wan Kenobi and taking responsibility for everything from the avalanches that force the party to turn to Moria, to the creation of the Uruk-Hai orcs.
None of these additions, subtractions or changes makes the story any less enjoyable in any way. Quite to the contrary: it's possible (although slightly heretical) to say that the Lord of the Rings film is better than the novel at telling its story. It's more concise, with easier to follow plot points and more amalgamated minor characters, and it skips over much of the drudgery of walking from point A to point B and gets right to the action. More importantly, it's also more clearly the first film in a trilogy. Tolkien didn't intend for Lord of the Rings to be a trilogy; his publishers did. Lord of the Rings, the novel, is meant to be read as a single piece. Lord of the Rings, the movie, is influenced by decades of film trilogies, and is meant to be the first part of a trilogy. And it definitely feels like it.
Aragorn, for instance, is made out to be much more important in the film than he is, at first, in the novel. He knows, for instance, that Frodo is leaving before it happens, and it is he who kills the final orc when Boromir is defending Merry and Pippin in vain. The reason for this is obvious: for Two Towers, we're splitting the party up into three pieces. Much like Luke and Han split up in The Empire Strikes Back, he and Frodo are going their separate ways, and each will deal with things in his own way, and we absolutely need to establish Aragorn as a more important character, since he'll have to carry his part of the story on his own. This is accomplished quite well.
In fact, all the characters are likable for their own reasons, and none of them is overbearing or overdone. This is particularly important when it comes to the crucial triad of Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli, who have gone on to form the archetypical triad that appears in so many fantasy novels (such as Drizzt, Bruenor and Wulfgar from R.A. Salvatore's Icewind Dales Trilogy). Legolas is decidedly elven, but he's not a pointy-shoe wearing pansy, nor a magically-augmented speed freak. He's a crack shot with a bow, but that's all, and we never get the impression that he's nothing but ears. Likewise, Gimli is well played with a full range of emotion, not at all like the sickening parody of a dwarf that the world was forced to witness in the Dungeons & Dragons movie.
Was it a good film? Absolutely. One of the best of the year. One of the best I've ever seen. Will it change the world? No. Will it change the face of fantasy films for the decade to come? Probably not. But it might, especially since it's not over yet. Not only are there two more films coming in this series, but Harry Potter's got at least two more sequels coming as well. It will be hard to avoid fantasy films for a while, and in my book that's a good thing.
Something to consider, however, is whether or not the world can still embrace a Lord of the Rings as eagerly as it embraced Harry Potter. The fantasy genre and role-playing games, like it or not, are traditionally geared towards a younger audience, and Harry Potter pulls in that audience a lot more readily than Lord of the Rings nowadays. It's got snappier writing, more easily accessible characters, and has been marketed much more heavily than Lord of the Rings ever was. Gone are the days of eating Cheetos in your mother's basement while rolling fistfuls of brightly colored dice as you page eagerly through your scandalous copy of the Monster Manual as you look up the statistics on devils and demons like Asmodeus and Demogorgon, all the while laughing because there's some religious group saying that Dungeons & Dragons is Satanic and causes kids to commit suicide and TSR would never, ever remove devils from the rulebooks, would they?
Oh, wait. They would.
Of course, they put them back, but devils or no devils, today's Dungeons & Dragons is obviously heavily influenced by Pokemon and Magic: The Gathering, with young sorcerers firing off spells as people perform incredible Feats of strength. Certainly, there's a dark element there (the leather bondage gear equipment, for example), but for the most part it's a more family friendly game, as befits Hasbro, which owns the whole shebang at this point. Fantasy isn't what it used to be. Tolkien himself said that Lord of the Rings is about death, and that's not what today's audience is looking for. They want smart, cute little wizards flying around on broomsticks. There's nothing particularly wrong with that, mind. But it's a definite change.
So enjoy your Lord of the Rings movies. Enjoy your Tolkien. Dust off your old Advanced Dungeons & Dragons modules and think fondly of the days when you could walk through hell on your way to the slaver's stockade, or battle flaming demons on narrow stone bridges in dank, corpse-filled mines. Just don't expect the world to do it with you. The days of Middle Earth are long gone. But there's no need to fret. Gandalf and the elves may have sailed off to other lands, but we've still got Dumbledore. There'll always be room for fantasy. It's just a question of how much room.
Time will tell.